Mysterious work at the time, tunnels became a relic of the cold war
|One of the blasts that took place near Buckhorn Wash between February and October of 1948.|
In October of 1947, some men and machines showed up on the northern edge of Buckhorn Wash in the San Rafael Swell one day and began drilling into the sandstone.
When asked what they were doing, there were few answers from either their bosses or the workmen themselves.
It was a confusing time in America. The fear of World War II and an impending possible Japanese invasion of the west coast had been transformed over the past six years into a fear of the Soviet Communists launching an attack on the United States.
Emery and Carbon Counties were abuzz with stories about these men who said they worked for the R.S. McClintock Company out of Spokane, Wash. They stayed in motels in Castle Dale and were transported each day out to the drill site where they said they were taking "core samples."
While the workers would talk to those in town, they themselves knew little about what they were doing in the middle of the southeastern Utah desert. They only revealed that they were doing something that they were told to do, because their company had a contract with the United States military.
The Emery County Progress reported on Oct. 3, 1947 that the project that began with eight men appearing on the sandstone one day "thus far has been a tight-locked secret."
The paper reported that the men were using diamond rotary drills to go down into the stone 100 to 150 feet or "to the depth of a certain kind of formation." When questioned most that were associated with the project said "We don't know what we are doing."
Emery residents didn't know what to think, but with cold war paranoia beginning to build stronger and stronger with each passing day, word traveled fast and furious.
To confuse matters even worse, at the same time an oil exploration company began drilling almost at the same time in an area known as the Castle Gate Dome. The two projects and a couple of others would get confused with each other for some time. However, they were on very different tracks. One was looking to take something out of the ground; the other was to possibly put something into it.
Years later the government would release documents that showed this was a test site to see what kind of stone would hold up best under huge amounts of explosives. The military was looking for a place to hide a military facility from the possibility of a direct hit by a powerful weapon, and still keep it's command and control capabilities.
But in 1947, while the general public labored under the illusion that the United States was the only nuclear capable country in the world, the government had intelligence that the Soviets were building an atomic bomb and in fact were advancing quickly to be able to put together a hydrogen bomb before too long, something the U.S. hadn't even done yet. In less than two years after the drilling at Buckhorn began, the Soviets did set off their first atomic blast on August 29, 1949.
The mystery of what was going on at Buckhorn continued into early 1948, after operations in the area had moved well beyond the stage of core drilling. The Emery Progress reported that on Feb. 27 "a high ranking person" who was working in the Buckhorn area had revealed that the "United States Engineering office" was going to use 320,000 pounds of TNT at the site to test the strength of the sandstone strata in the area.
It was also revealed that a contract would soon be signed with a large construction firm (which would turn out to be the largest construction company in the world at the time, Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho) to build tunnels for the test. One man who was associated with the project was interviewed in Castle Dale one day and told the paper, "I don't want to be any closer than this" when the (big) blast goes off.
The paper at the time supposed that the test was to see if warehouses and factories to support another war effort could be built under the ground there and withstand attacks from the air. At that time the initial drilling had taken place, but other kinds of improvements in the area were being made and several firms were mapping the area.
One group from the Colorado School of Mines was drilling wells 30 inches around and then exploding some large charges of dynamite at various levels in them. These initial tests went on for a few weeks.
The paper reported that the head of the explosives survey at the site, Hugh Conners, told a reporter that he had surveyed the entire western United States for suitable formations of shale, limestone, sandstone and granite to do tests on. At the time the shale and limestone formation studies had been abandoned for lack of funds and the engineers were concentrating on the other two types of stone. Testing in granite formations was going on outside of Grand Junction, Colo. during the same period.
On March 7 the Emery Progress interviewed R. E. Selby, the drilling superintendent for Morrison-Knudsen and he told the paper that the company would be building barracks for 100 workers at Buckhorn, but that some would still be staying in Castle Dale and other towns. At that time it came out that the actual building of the test structures would take four to six months. But other companies employees working in the area said they had been told they would be working there for up to 18 months.
At that point the supposition began; some were convinced that a permanent military base would be located in the area, giving a large boost to the economy. But others, particularly the paper, pointed out that test for bases were also not only being done near Grand Junction, but also at Dugway.
By this time much of the rest of the state and even the country knew what was going on in the San Rafael Swell as the government began to put out releases that reported the operations to major newspapers. A story appeared in the March 6 issue of the Salt Lake Tribune concerning the site, along with many others in other newspapers.
On March 19 the Emery Progress reported that the construction company was also going to build a landing strip so officials who were conducting the experiments at the three sites could commute from one to the other.
Then suddenly, the government tightened up the information flow. Construction personnel and engineers stopped talking about the project, and it was announced that the only information that would come out of the project from then on would come through press releases and official channels.
However by this time almost everyone had figured out what was going on, and as the tunnels were finished and blasts were set off people began to wonder what was coming of the tests.
According to the records that were released later, blasts were set off ranging from a number of charges with 320 lbs. of explosives to the biggest blast that took place on or around Oct. 4, 1948 that employed 320,000 lbs. of explosives. All together there were 19 tests with three utilizing 40,000 lbs. of explosives and one 10,000 lb. test included too. The tests had been divided up into two kinds of series of tests to look for different things by the engineers in charge.
After the final test the Secretary of the Army cancelled the program of testing sandstone and no base was ever built in Emery County. Instead, installations in the granite mountains of Colorado were later constructed, probably based on what the tests had shown.
Over the months of the tests there was little mention in the local newspapers about what was going on at the site. Even the big explosion at the end of the tests was not mentioned. The effects must have been minor, but the project did give Emery County a short economic burst due to the influx of outsiders in those two years.
And it also left the tunnels and the remnants for everyone to see.
Relics of the cold war, now silent and still.